You take a picture of a building, and it’s just a building. Then you see a photograph of that same building in an art gallery, and it’s art. What makes it art? It’s the same building. But the artist waited for the perfect time at sunset, when the light hit the pillars just so, and the sun glanced off the metal roof, and the color of the sky echoed that of the turning leaves on the surrounding trees. Then the artist chooses a different angle, and the entire tableau takes another dimension. When you look at art, you are moved. You feel something.
You take a selfie, and it’s a portrait. But someone talented will play with light and shadow, maybe choose a black and white medium. And will speak to you and make you feel something, so that the portrait will look happy, or haunted, or sad, or intriguing. It’s still your face, but in the hands of an artist, it became art.
Similarly, a painting can be flat and inexpressive, while another painting of the same subject will make you feel something. People loved or hated the great painters of their times because they made them feel. And sometimes these feelings were uncomfortable. Hatred and guilt are strong feelings. Picasso had many enemies before being recognized as a genius. True art brings emotion to the person experiencing it.
A movie documentary can be informative without emotion. But an artist will make that documentary poignant and get the audience to stand up and cheer and clap at the end. A fictional movie will use music to set the mood, and sounds and special effects to make the audience feel anticipation, fear, love, victory, etc.
And so it is with a novel. It can be a series of actions from characters in a setting, or it can be a true experience for the reader. We are painting with words, expressing emotions to make the reader feel, and our novels become a work of art.
So the secret for a writer is to feel deeply. Only then can we use words to make the reader feel and care about our characters and our stories. But like with any art, there is also a technique, like there is for painters, photographers and film makers. And it takes practice to master the technique. The secret to get the feelings on the page is in the details. A description will fall flat if it doesn’t include visual as well as other important sensory details. Smells, sounds, touch, taste, and visual effects, as well as the physical sensations experienced by the character in the story will evoke the same reactions and awaken the same feelings in the reader.
After reading ASHES FOR THE ELEPHANT GOD, readers told me they could feel the heat, smell the flowers and the spices, and hear the music, and taste the foods of India. They felt transported to another place, another time, another culture. It’s because I brought my own love of India to the pages of the book, and because I felt it, I was able to bring it to life in the writing and make the reader feel it as well.